Sunday, November 26, 2006

what’s in a name: non-idiomatic improvisation

Is any improvised music really idiomatic?

I’ve already remarked on the label ‘non-idiomatic improvisation’ in connection with ‘pan-idiomatic improvisation’, and, in addition, in examining the term ‘free improvisation’, I’ve stated that ‘free improvisation’ could denote an “assortment of overlapping or unrelated things”, and to some, perhaps lesser, extent, this is also the case with ‘non-idiomatic improvisation.’ Also, in the same way that we can read the ‘free’ to denote an aspiration rather than an achievement, ‘non-idiomatic’ could denote an (unachievable) aim.
Having already iterated the corresponding problems and pitfalls, I don’t want to rehearse them here in the context of this new term. I do, however, want to ask whether improvisation can, under any circumstance, be idiomatic. I am not asking if non-idiomatic improvisation is possible (analogous to the question of whether an improvisation can be truly free), I’m asking if ‘idiomatic improvisation’ is a misnomer.

According to my computer’s online dictionary, idiom is “a characteristic mode of expression in music or art.” Hmm… not sure that helps here. So, beyond definitions of idiom that assume communication or expression (thorny parameters that likely end up in the ‘I-know-it-when-I-see-it’ domain), what might be a pragmatic, workable definition of ‘idiom’? I’ll propose, for the purposes of this discussion, that idiom is the mechanism via which the intricate and contingent nexus of expectations play out through performance. Listening to a performance, if expectations are met, we have something that is idiomatic, perhaps even stereotypical.
Fine, fine, fine… But in practice, how is an audience member processing, and judging, these chains and chains of probabilities? In practice, how are you even to know which set of probabilistic archetypes—which idiom—is in operation? And how does this all play out in the practice of improvisation?
Take a guitarist, an improviser. Just that choice of instrument comes with so much cultural baggage that an audience member, for all I know, is immediately calculating clouds of probable scenarios. Again, fine, fine, fine… but does this mean that the audience member cannot be surprised? That they cannot have their expectation confounded? (Incidentally, I think the problem with our reasoning here is that we’re assuming, and implicitly positing, intentionality as knowable, and as a significant (perhaps primary) ingredient in thinking about expectations; we’re to some extent still thinking about communication or expression.)
I’d argue that all improvisation must, by definition, at least allow the possibility of the redefinition of idioms. That the act of improvisation negates, kicks around, or opens up, the black box of the idiom. Although I think a performer can be idiom-conscious and improvise at the same time, I don’t believe they are bound by it. I like to think that audiences of improvisation don’t come to be spectators at an authorization ceremony, but are witnesses to a, at a bare minimum, mild shakeup.

What’s surprising is not that improvisation can confound the chain of expectations, but that, for example, Pulitzer Prize winning neo-classicists can consistently fulfill them ;-)

Derek Bailey, himself probably the best known proponent of the ‘non-idiomatic’ moniker, remarked that the difference between free and idiomatic improvisation depends on the former’s ability to “renew and change the known and so provoke an open-endedness which by definition is not possible in idiomatic improvisation” (Bailey, 1992, Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music, London: British Library National Sound Archive, p. 142). Yet, in earlier in the same book, acknowledged that improvisation in general is “the sap through which music renews and reinvigorates itself” (ibid. p. 28). Does this mean that even Bailey saw that idiomatic improvisation could be, at times, free?; that it might, on occasion, not be idiomatic at all?


Good Times said...

Pan idiomatic improvisation, non idiomatic improvisation, free improvisation, tex-mex-fusion: who makes up these monikers? Who do they *serve*?

"isn't that just another way for people who suck to make up an excuse for why they suck?" said she who, after years of listening to my record collection, cannot suspend her disbelief a moment longer.

Is the "name game" mere carnival barking by desperate hucksters (still foolishly/diabolically) trying to make money from another's intellectual capital?

Is the "name game" an integral part of the music making experience? I.E., would music exist without this one in a turtle neck whining about 'non ideomatic' and this one in a che-guavara tee shirt babbling on about free jazz?

What if, unbeknownst to the *musicians*, the barkers and the salesmen and the joint chiefs of staff all decided to roll out a brand new name for the holiday season: Sensitive All Encompasing Crazy Experimental Jibba-Jabba Look At Me Look At Me Music (or simply SAECEJJLAMLAMM music for short?)

Say Pepsi got on board, and they started to advertise SAECEJJLAMLAMM music on all the better Death-Kulture news feeds: MSN News, Bloomberg, etc. Say the parent culture plucked one such potentially strong maker of SAECEJJLAMLAMM music, gave them a half a million bucks and a tiara, thus making him/her the Forever Reigning Emperor/Empress of All Expensive Watches, Import Cars, After Dinner Liquors, Instrument Endorsements and extended stays at all the 'hippest' clubs.

NOW--what If the REST of the *musicians* who *made the music* NEVER FOUND OUT that the NAME of this thing had been changed?


Would the music sound any different?

Would it sound any different once they were told of the good news--(the dawning of a new day, really)--that their music now had 'a name' and by extension they and their music now had an 'identity' that all *consumers* could agree upon and easily utilize for the coming Holiday Shopping Season?

Great blog my friend!


the improvising guitarist said...

“who makes up these monikers? Who do they *serve*?”

If by that you mean that they are terms of politics—yes, I agree. (e.g. Staying with the Braxton theme for the moment: “‘Jazz’ is the name of the political system that controls and dictates African-American information dynamics.”) I explored some of the possible motivation for denying idiom that serve (a mis-guided) attempt to be free from markers of identity and a dream to rid yourself of complicity in inequalities.

“Is the "name game" mere carnival barking by desperate hucksters (still foolishly/diabolically) trying to make money from another's intellectual capital?”

That’s a very good point. I plan on getting to this.
But for the moment an interesting case in point would be ‘World Music.’ Somehow a disparate collection of material (ranging from local pop musics to ethnographic recordings) that had existed for decades could now be marketed (in the West). Did this benefit, as a whole, the musics and musicians? The answer, of course, is mixed, but I might hazard a guess that, although ‘World Music’ now has its Stars, that the majority of the practitioners and the traditions are as neglected and trivialized as before.
As I believe Shepp once wrote: “…There are niggers with a million dollars but ain’t no nigger got a billion dollars.”

“Would the music sound any different?”

Yes and no. There’s the issue of marketing which I don’t want to get into right now, but there’s also the issue of self-definition. If musicians (and audience, and whoever) do not name these things (sounds, practices, micro-societies, etc) someone else (Pepsi?) will. For those of us who, for example, may see ourselves coming from marginal(ized) traditions, we may end up becoming a footnote in someone else’s grand tradition. (More Braxton: “For him [writer in The London Times] to call my music European-based, in terms of vocabulary, is profoundly mis-documenting my music.”)

“Great blog my friend!”

Thanks for the comment. You just brightened my blogosphere experience since my recent bruising ;-)

S, tig

Peter said...

interesting stuff. but i would say that in practice, 'non idiomatic improvisation' is just as readily identifiable to the casual listener as heavy metal or trad jazz. the concept of 'free' improvisation seems to be a misnomer of the highest order. it's as stylistically proscribed as any other form, and the dogma that surrounds it only serves to heighten that...

the improvising guitarist said...

I agree that “‘non-idiomatic improvisation’ is just as readily identifiable” as anything. I was making the converse point (which I think boils down to the same thing, discourses and counter-discourses and all) that all improvised music is ‘non-idiomatic’ in a sense (not just the stuff that is labeled as such).

“…the concept of 'free' improvisation seems to be a misnomer of the highest order. it's as stylistically proscribed as any other form, and the dogma that surrounds it only serves to heighten that...”

I think there’s two issues here. The first, the concept, I think, can be salvaged (I touched on some of these issues in another entry). Whether you would want to, of course, is a totally different question.
On the other hand, I agree that the practice/tradition of ‘free improvisation’ is (or has become) as dogmatic and inflexible (perhaps fossilized) as anything out there (and this relates to sjz’s comments about labels and moniker via SAECEJJLAMLAMM).

By the way, I noticed that you had an entry on free improvisation in December 2005. Have you done any more playing in that field since then?

S, tig

Good Times said...

Once you label me you negate me.
--Soren Kierkegaard

Peter said...

i think you're right that 'free improvisation' is a pretty bad term; i'd prefer to call it 'spontaneously improvised' but 'open improvisation' is probably even better.

not that i'd want to be opressing anyone with those terms you understand. :-)

though most of the music i get involved in is largely improvised, i've got no desire to do any more 'free improv'. which is just as well, because i don't get offered the gigs anymore. i miss the money though...

nice blog btw.

the improvising guitarist said...

“Once you label me you negate me.”

That’s fine as far as it goes, and that’s on parallel docks to the sentiments of those who subscribe to the ‘non-idiomatic’ moniker. And Kierkegaard’s statement is a pretty good formulation of the sentiments of those who define themselves by negation (for example, AMM).
Although I could say that the identity-blindness encapsulated in that sentiment is maybe admirable, I think it’s naive—it’s the political equivalent of burying your head in the sand—and that denial can only be successful when in a position of privilege. (I’m thinking, for instance, of studies in which people are surveyed about ‘whiteness’ in the U.S. ‘White’ people are less likely to be able to articulate what ‘whiteness’ means, while at the same time more likely to profess colorblindness. If you’re not ‘white,’ the opposite on both counts. And is it just me, or are rich people more likely to say money doesn’t matter.)

BTW, thanks for the comment (alway cool to have someone quote a Danish philosopher in the blog).

S, tig

the improvising guitarist said...

“Once you label me you negate me.”

Or maybe I should have said: Once I label myself, you cannot negate me ;-)